Is Brexit a tribal affair? Guest writer, Dr. Brian Milne looks at Brexit as an anthropological event. Dr Milne, social anthropologist, specialising in the human rights of children has also worked on migration and citizenship as topic in their own right. Brian is a Scot now living in France, a committed internationalist and European citizen.

When looking at what is happening to the UK at present it would be possible to break it down into groups that are almost tribal. Strictly speaking, tribalism is a state of being organised in, a believer in or follower of, a shared identity. In terms of conformity within groups that share the characteristics of tribes, it can also refer to a particular way of thinking or behaving in popular cultural terms in which people are, and sometimes extremely so, loyal to their own tribe or social group. Behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s identity group implies a strong cultural character that separates each member of a group from the members of another group. That ‘culture’ is based on strong relations of familiarity that enable members to develop and possess a strong feeling of common identity. Seen objectively, for a regular tribal group to form there needs to be consistent shared organisation, discourse and exchange. On the other hand, when looked at subjectively, powerful feelings, whether they actually exist or not, about a shared identity can lead people to feel tribally connected. Some experts have postulated a view that the human brain is hard wired towards tribalism because of evolutionary advantages. thus ensuring survival in an ever competing human world. However, this argument is usually linked to equating original questions of sociability with tribalism. This sociability also extends to friendships, alliances and likewise enmity among tribes. For many years in the UK, likewise many other nations, football has bred a kind of aggressive tribalism but one that dissipates when members of rival teams are brought together in national teams. Members of established tribes (teams) also become de facto enemies whilst playing for opponent nations. There have been studies written by anthropologists that examine exactly that relationship within the sport[1]. So let us assume that at present the UK is overall a society motivated by a kind of cultural tribalism that is like an exaggerated football competition.

The result of the referendum on the membership of the European Union in the UK has drawn out something that one could very easily identify as tribalism. It is far more complicated than referring to individuals and groups as ‘Leavers’, ‘Remainers’, ‘Kippers’, ‘Remoaners’ with descriptions of these and their views in such forms as ‘right wingers’, ‘lefties’, ‘traitors’, ‘Eurosceptics’, ‘Europhobes’, ‘Europhiles’, each describing an identity attached to or by particular groups. If that was not enough, the UK is after all a union made up of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, plus Gibraltar which is a British Overseas Territory in this case. It is common knowledge that within one part of the UK, Northern Ireland, there is historically an enduring tension between Catholic and Protestant communities that have given rise to serious and enduring violence. It is also to a point ethnic in that the majority of Protestants have Scots ancestry to the point that many of them still retain strong contacts, including family connections. However, much of the rest of the UK is equally divided into tribal identities whether simply regional or religious such as Catholic and Protestant founded football team rivalries that are strong in Scotland. One must, of course, take into account that London, generally considered very different to the rest of the UK, along with Oxford and Cambridge that are considered ‘different’ (elsewhere too, of course) voted strongly to remain in the EU. Northern Ireland and Scotland emphatically voted to remain, however around 51.9% of the 72.2% turnout were in favour of leaving against 48.1% for staying in the UK as a whole. The outcome is what appears to be a closely aligned grouping of tribes who make up the 51.9% who consider themselves decisively victorious over the 48.1%, irrespective of the closeness of the size of the two ‘sides’ or the remaining unknown 37.8%. However, the self ordained majority is itself a tenuous alignment with far more potential to fall apart than its common rival that also contains many moderates who would prefer differences not to be conflictive.

Of course, it would be negligent to forget one of the mainstays of the union of single and alignments of different groups which is leadership. Leaders need to be either charismatic, thus be highly convincing whatever they say or do, and the consequences for their following thereof or have the means to assume power by force and the ability to allow their followers to dominate all others. Modern politics still rely entirely on this kind of leadership. Groups also need heroes, sometimes those are leaders but more often individuals who have made a particular impression through what is considered bravery or another essentially positive quality in the minds of their admirers. Heroes often become leaders. In time leaders leave positions of power by retirement, death or election and gradually fade into popular memory. Those memories sometimes become myths that initially emphasis, then later exaggerate the powers and qualities of heroes also merging former leaders into a collective mythical identity, which in their turn often gives them a godlike status and occasionally makes them into gods with large followings. Thus, at present we have examples like Margaret Thatcher who argued for European unity who is viewed as symbolic of the exact opposite as some kind of nationalist heroine who united tribes. Even closer to godlike status is Winston Churchill who, despite his 1947 speech in which he described his vision of a United States of Europe that did not explicitly include the UK but also did not exclude it, has been glossed over in order to use him as an icon, a hero of ‘Britishness’. Hence, we find present dominant characters in the anti-EU leadership evoking images of these great patriots who are used as hero, pseudo-gods who would support the UK leaving the EU, even when in their lifetimes they held a very different and even opposite position.

So, we have tribes together in a flimsy alignment that has assumed a character that appears to be nationalism. At present they are supporting the ‘national team’, however doing so whilst ignoring all the differences surrounding their common cause. That their leadership is becoming weaker by the day and that the common cause predicated on appealing words broadcast by a number of contenders for the leadership who have both been shown to have spun yarns and not become leader is weakening the position of the assembled tribes who still claim unity. How long that will last before older tensions disperse them when moderates feel that they cannot remain aligned with the more extreme tribal groups who will simply shout louder whilst their number declines remains to be seen? The question thus arises as to whether that shouting will enable the leadership to follow the purported route they have adopted and lead the assembled tribes to their ‘New Jerusalem’? Thus far divisions between the nations that form the union are being generally put down, if not by and large ignored. New tensions on top of already existing pressures to take into account the wishes of those nations may further exacerbate growing divisions. Intertribal symbolic warfare is highly likely, but with the additional complication of nations of other tribes at conflict with those. Then within the larger nation there is already massive rejection of members of other tribes and nations that is adding to tensions as those who manifest that rejection through xenophobia instil fear in the far more moderate and increasingly confused majority of all sides of the Brexit argument.

That is, of course, thus far looking only at the UK. The theoretically allied tribes are staring across the Channel at a large collection of other tribes in their respective alliance of nations which are broadly speaking collectively united. Within those nations there are what are considered to be ancient enemies of the UK as well as natural rivals, although there are a few sympathetic tribes with which tenuous links have sometimes been formed. It would appear though that the sabre rattling tribes do not comprehend that by and large the many tribes beyond the Strait of Dover are at relative peace with each other and in a position of strength to resist whatever threat the ones in the UK believe they pose to their unity.

From the point of view of the ethnographer looking at the UK at present there are many of the things that writers of popular fiction who described savages in threatening, hazardous jungles in far off lands wrote about in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Unfortunately there is no ‘Tarzan’ to swing through the trees to conquer the wild tribes; at least neither Theresa May appears not to have such superpowers nor any of her present cabinet. So, for the anthropologist looking at the sociopolitical situation it is an exciting time, for many people it is a period of uncertainty who to some extent are looking at the fiction and hoping that a Tarzan character will come to life and for the rest of the world looking in on the UK there is the mass of tribes assembled but becoming clearly fractious like the savages in once popular fiction. I am one of the people looking at it as an interesting period; however it must also be said that one is not obliged to like what they see and I certainly do not. To complete the football analogy, the kick off was preceded by fouls, however only yellow rather than red cards have been shown. Right now the game seems to be heading for missed goals but beware of dirty fouls followed by disallowed penalties. What is even more problematic about this game is that there is no referee at present, but then if there was it is highly likely that he or she would be from the wrong tribe, so lacking authority. Like all supporters, I am naturally egging my own team on but a not being so doggedly tribal that I underestimate the other team.

[1] A recent publication with a number of excellent examples is New Ethnographies of Football in Europe: People, Passions, Politics, 2016, Alexandra Schwell, Michal Buchowski, Malgorzata Kowalska and Nina Szogs (eds), London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.